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 Created: 07/05/04


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– R U S S I A ! – 

July 5, 2004 – After four days at sea we are almost to our next destination. The ship will dock in Busan, South Korea, early tomorrow morning. Our last port was in the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, which is located on Russia's remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Approximately 4200 miles east of Moscow, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (PK) is about as far east as you can go on Russian soil. Some refer to Kamchatka as the "Land of Fire and Ice." Technically it is part of Siberia, but Kamchatka's climate is more temperate due to the influence of the surrounding seas, and it certainly has its own unique identity, as you will soon see.

The photograph above was taken about a half hour after sunset, at 11pm. (Sunrise would follow about five hours later.) We'd been at sea for four days. The weather had been pretty monotonous – cold, wet and and foggy for most of the voyage. My husband and I were getting ready to turn in for the night when we noticed a distinct pink haze in the western cloud cover. We left our cabin and headed to the lounge to join a handful of observers standing before the wall of glass that stretches across the bow of the ship from port to starboard. As we watched, the sun dropped below a solid bank of clouds near the horizon and suddenly the sky was buzzing with color.

Soon after, a handful of dark hazy forms materialized along the horizon line. More clouds, we thought, but we were wrong. Among us was an anthropologist who does field work in Kamchatka. He immediately recognized the profile of Kamchatka's many volcanic peaks emerging in the distance. The ship was closer to land than any of us realized.

We were actually seeing Russia!!

Our excitement was high. For the next hour we witnessed an indescribably brilliant display of shifting color and light. Kamchatka's volcanoes were now very visible, distinct in the afterglow. With the aid of binoculars, we could even make out details in the snowy peaks. It was a sunset none of us will ever forget.

As I mentioned last week, the peninsula of Kamchatka is located on the "Ring of Fire" where collisions of the earth's tectonic plates generate deep trenches, earthquakes and volcanoes. It is comparable in size to Japan, but unlike Japan, Kamchatka is teeming with volcanoes – 160, to be exact – and 29 of them are still active. During our visit to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, many of us would have the opportunity to hike the slopes the Avachinsky Volcano.

We docked at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on June 28. It was a sunny morning and the temperature was in the mid-50's. (The previous week had been rainy and cold – typical June conditions, we were told.) Shortly after we anchored, a team of Russian officials boarded the ship and began the tedious task of reviewing 500+ passports and visas. Several hours passed before we were all given clearance to leave the ship and go ashore. For the next three days we had to go through passport control each time we went ashore and whenever we returned to the vessel. Fortunately, the operation ran very smoothly despite some intoxicated students (too much cheap vodka) and a few lost passports.

The Dacha
There were many field trips offered in PK. Summer in Russia is "dacha season" so Billy and I signed up to visit a dacha. During the summer many Russian city-dwellers retreat to their dacha, a small plot of land in the countryside where they maintain a modest cabin (often hand-built) along with a substantial garden and/or hothouse for growing fruit and vegetables. The practice dates back to the Soviet period when produce was not widely available to the general public. Home-grown strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, peppers, carrots and beets provide quality agricultural products that not always readily available in the market year-round. Our dacha visit included a sumptuous outdoor picnic consisting of smoked salmon, red caviar, brown bread, cheese, various salads and pork shish kabobs grilled over a wood fire. It was attended by 32 students and faculty, assisted by two Russian translators. Our host was a retired geophysicist who, along with his gracious wife, spoke no English.

The Avachinsky Volcano
Our most exciting field trip took place the second day when 40 of us were loaded into some old Russian army trucks that had been converted into all-terrain tourist vehicles. After a bone-jolting journey for two hours over dirt roads that became increasingly difficult due to rocks and steep inclines, the trucks finally could go no further. We had reached the end of a plateau at the base of the Avachinsky Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in Kamchatka. We were divided into three groups and told to report back to "base camp" within four hours. The first group to start out were those people who wanted to climb as high as possible, as fast as possible. They were assigned two guides. My husband, a geologist, led the second group. We were accompanied by a Russian volcanologist from Moscow who had agreed to accompany Billy at the request of a mutual colleague. She was very knowledgeable about the region's volcanoes and spoke impeccable English. Our group's objective was to enjoy a leisurely hike up the slope of the volcano with many stops along the way for educational observations, discussions and photo opportunities. The third group consisted of adults with with younger children and those individuals with physical limitations that might limit their ability to participate in a lengthy hike.

The weather that day was perfect for trekking. We hiked upward over a long finger of snow-covered volcanic outwash, which consisted mainly of poorly sorted volcanic debris covered by the past year's accumulation of snow. A well-defined stream, fed by melting snow from above, meandered through the snow pack adding further interest to the dramatic volcanic terrain. We were about an hour into the hike when we discovered, with the aid of binoculars, that one of the clouds we saw near the top of the volcano was actually a fumerol, or steam vent. Vera, the volcanologist, told us that Avachinsky last erupted in 1991 and the magma continues to "simmer" beneath a plugged chamber near the crest. It is certain to erupt again, but we were assured that all of Kamchatka's volcanoes are carefully monitored and we were in no immediate danger.

Because we paced ourselves, it was an easy hike, made even more pleasurable by the sound of cuckoos calling to each other from each side of the valley in which we were climbing. The hikers that left ahead of us spread out along the trail and moved pretty quickly. Eventually they disappeared from sight. They continued on for quite some time until the terrain became a too steep for comfort. At that point, their guides announced it was time to turn back. Our group, which had also spread out along the trail, spotted the first group coming back down. We knew we had just about the right amount of time to make it back to camp at a comfortable pace. By the time we got back to the trucks, a soft rain had begun to fall.

We'd been told that lunch would be served on the plateau prior to our bone-rattling ride home. During our absence, our Russian hosts had been busy preparing a hearty meal for the 40 hungry hikers. Tables had been laid out in a clearing, loaded with smoked salmon, brown bread and cheese. Salmon fillets sizzled in heavy pans over a roaring campfire and were then quickly transfered to large platters which were brought to the tables. A huge kettle of borscht simmered over a second wood fire. Under the drizzling sky, we lined up with tin bowls for our ration of hot soup. All this was followed with a serving of hot tea and sweets. It was a very good meal.

The ride back was even bumpier than the ride out, but it was still fun. Late that afternoon we were deposited back on the wharf just in time for our next field trip. We would be spending the evening with 20 other people sitting around a campfire in a big blue "chume" (teepee), eating strange food made from wild native plants, while listening to a noted Kamchatka bard (folk singer) as he attempted to ply us with vodka between songs. But that's a story I'll save for another time.

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